‘The very fact that the Danes gained not only an ascendancy in many parts of England during the Anglo-Saxon dynasties but even the government of them all, is a proof that they were at that period a race of individuals superior to the natives of the land… These people formed a striking contrast to the oppressed race of the Anglo-Saxons.’  S. W. Partington.[1]

‘Vikings had a profound impact on the history of the English-speaking people. In the period from the first recorded raids in the late eighth century, until the conquest of England by Knútr in 1016, the political geography, culture, and identities of the Anglo-Saxons were transformed.’ Clare Downham.[2]

The arrival of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in East Anglia in 865 was the start of the Scandinavian settlement of England. We know a good deal about the leaders of this army and of the battles between them and the English kings in the years and decades to come. We also know something of how the Danelaw came into existence, as well as the relations of these Northmen with the Irish, the Northumbrians, the Picts and the Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British). Yet where did the Great Army originally come from? The sources we have are few, but, I think, they do allow us to propose the view that the Great Army of 865 came originally from Frisia and indeed probably from the important viking base on the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the River Scheldt in what is now the Netherlands.[3]

The Great Heathen Army

The Great Heathen Army

Although Scandinavian ‘Vikings’ had first appeared in the British Isles, including Ireland, in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the Scandinavian settlement of England didn’t really start in earnest until the arrival of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in the east of England in 865. Before this the Northmen had already  made several major raids on England, for example the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 840 says that King Æthelwulf of Wessex was defeated at Carhampton in Somerset after 35 viking ships had landed in the area:

A.D. 840. This year King Æthelwulf fought at Charmouth with thirty-five ship’s-crews, and the Danes remained masters of the place. The Emperor Louis died this year.[4]

The Frankish Annals of St. Bertin reported the same incident but under the year 844: ‘The Northmen launched a major attack on the island of Britain. After a battle lasting three days, the Northmen emerged the winners – plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere. They wielded power over the land at will.’[5] Despite this, when the Scandinavians returned again in force in 851 the king of Wessex, Æthelwulf, together with his sons Æthelbald and Æthelstan, was able to secure rare victories:

A.D. 851. This year Alderman Ceorl, with the men of Devonshire, fought the heathen army at Wemburg, and after making great slaughter obtained the victory. The same year King Athelstan and Alderman Elchere (Ealhhere) fought in their ships, and slew a large army at Sandwich in Kent, taking nine ships and dispersing the rest. The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Thanet. The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames; the crew of which went upon land, and stormed Canterbury and London; putting to flight Beorhtwulf, king of the Mercians, with his army; and then marched southward over the Thames into Surrey. Here Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald, at the head of the West-Saxon army, fought with them at Ockley, and made the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported to this present day. There also they obtained the victory.[6]

Sandwich - Britain's first naval battle

Sandwich – Britain’s first naval battle

The English naval victory at Sandwich was described by Sir Frank Stenton as ‘the first naval battle in recorded English history’.[7] ‘Ealhhere’s death in battle against Vikings is recorded c. 853. Æthelstan is not mentioned after 851 and presumably died before Æthelwulf went to Rome in 855 as he was not included in arrangements for government of the kingdom during his father’s absence.’[8]

The Scandinavians attacked Winchester in 860. Then it wasn’t until 865 that they once more appeared in force in England, and this time they came to stay. The entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 865 to 867 read:

A.D. 865. This year sat the heathen army in the isle of Thanet, and made peace with the men of Kent, who promised money therewith; but under the security of peace, and the promise of money, the army in the night stole up the country, and overran all Kent eastward.

A.D. 866. This year Ethelred, brother of Ethelbert, took to the West-Saxon government; and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed; and the inhabitants made peace with them.

A.D. 867. This year the army went from the East-Angles over the mouth of the Humber to the Northumbrians, as far as York. And there was much dissension in that nation among themselves; they had deposed their king Osbert, and had admitted Aella, who had no natural claim. Late in the year, however, they returned to their allegiance, and they were now fighting against the common enemy; having collected a vast force, with which they fought the army at York; and breaking open the town, some of them entered in. Then was there an immense slaughter of the Northumbrians, some within and some without; and both the kings were slain on the spot. The survivors made peace with the army… [9]

Scandinavian settlement in Britain

Scandinavian settlement in Britain

All this is reasonably well known, at least to those who take an interest in such things. It was the Great Army which appeared in 865 that was the spearhead of the establishment of major Scandinavian settlements in eastern and northern England, later generally called the Danelaw, but also in Lancashire and Cumbria, areas often not designated as part of the Danelaw. These Scandinavians broke the power of the Anglian/English kingdom of Northumbria and very nearly destroyed Wessex too. For decades to come kings of Wessex, such as Alfred ‘the Great’ and his descendants, were constantly preoccupied with fighting off the ‘Danes’, and it was not until nearly a hundred years later that they succeeded (at least for a time) in nullifying the Scandinavian threat. The Scots, Welsh and Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British) also had to deal with them as best they could.

But who were the leaders of these Scandinavian armies? And, perhaps more contentiously, where had these Scandinavians originally come from? I will try to answer these questions without resort to later Norse Sagas telling of ‘Ívarr the Boneless’ and his supposed father Ragnarr Loðbrók (Hairy-Breeches), fascinating though they undoubtedly are.[10]

The leaders of the Great Heathen Army

Ivan Kaye as 'Ivar the Boneless'

Ivan Kaye as ‘Ivar the Boneless’

Regarding the first question, there is quite an abundance of near contemporary and later evidence that a chieftain called Ívarr and some of his brothers were the leaders of the Great Heathen Army of 865 and were still important in subsequent years. Ívarr and his brothers were the leaders of a group of Scandinavians who first appeared in Ireland in 851 or slightly before. They were referred to in Irish sources and in some Welsh and English sources as the Dubgaill, or ‘dark foreigners’, to differentiate them from earlier Scandinavians settlers in Ireland called the Finngaill, or ‘fair foreigners’.[11] The Annals of Ulster tell us that the leaders of the Dubgaill were Ívarr and his ‘associates’ (actually brothers) Óláfr, Asl and Hálfdan. Ívarr’s descendants were to go on to create a powerful dynasty of ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland’, as extensively described by Clare Downham in her authoritative book of this name.[12] We know much about the activities of brothers Óláfr, Ívarr and Asl in Britain and Ireland from 853 onwards. But eventually, as Downham says:

Ívarr travelled to East Anglia in 865 as part of the “great army”.[13]

The late tenth-century Chronicle of Athelweard is unequivocal about this; it says that ‘the fleets of the tyrant Ívarr (Iguuar)’ arrived from the north.[14] In discussing the martyrdom of the East Anglian king Edmund, Abbo of Fleury (d. 1004) wrote that Ívarr and Ubba were the leaders of the Scandinavian army: ‘Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom. In the fleet were the foremost chieftains Ivar and Ubbi, united through the devil.’[15]

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the year 878 mentions the defeat of ‘the brother of Ingwaer (Ívarr) and Healfdene (Hálfdan)’ in Devon.[16] This brother was probably Ubbi/Ubba, but the entry also confirms that Hálfdan and Ívarr were brothers. Marios Costambeys  in her biography of Ívarr writes: ‘As well as Hálfdan, text F of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names Ubba along with Ívarr as heading the army in East Anglia, and the life of St Oswald by Byrhtferth (fl. c.986–c.1016) records that Oswald’s grandfather had come to England from Scandinavia in the army led by Huba and Hinwaer.’[17]

According to Simeon of Durham’s History of the Church of Durham, admittedly a late and sometimes unreliable source, the army was made up of ‘people from all quarters, that is to say, of the Danes and Frisians, and other pagan nations, who arrived here in an immense fleet, under their kings and dukes, Halfdene, Inguar, Hubba, Beicsecg, Guthrun, Oscytell, Amund, Sidroc and another duke of the same name, Osbern, Frana, and Harold.’[18] Note the ‘Frisians’ here.

King Edmund is killed by the Grand Army

King Edmund is killed by the Grand Army

Although much more could be, and has been, discussed regarding the leadership and deeds of the Great Army of 865, as well as their subsequent fate, I think enough has been said to establish the near certainty that among its leaders were Ívarr and some of his brothers. It was in fact, to use the words of Clare Downham, ‘a family enterprise’. Most historians agree. Alex Wolf in From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 says that Ívarr ‘seems to have led the force from at least 856 following the death of their leader Horm in a failed invasion of Anglesey’.[19] Robert Ferguson says the Great Army was ‘under the command of brothers named Halfdan and Ingvar’ [20]

Summing up Marios Costambeys says:

On the assumption that these sources are correct in identifying this Ívarr as a leader of the great army, his movements can be traced through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s record of the progress of the army through England. After wintering in East Anglia from autumn 865, the army moved to York, which it took on 1 November 866. A Northumbrian attempt to retake the city was repelled and the Northumbrian kings Osberht and Ælle killed on 21 March 867. The vikings established Ecgberht as their puppet king in the north before moving, in the autumn of 867, to Nottingham in Mercia. The army returned to York in 868, staying for a year before crossing Mercia to Thetford in East Anglia. At this point they engaged the East Angles, killing their king Edmund (d. 869).[21]

Where had this Scandinavian Great Army originally come from?

History Channel's Ragnar Lodbrok

History Channel’s Ragnar Lodbrok

There is much legendary information regarding where Ívarr and his family may have originally come from. For example, according to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Norse sagas Ívarr was ‘Ívarr the Boneless’, the son of the legendary king Ragnarr Loðbrók.[22] These fascinating sagas about Ragnarr Loðbrók and his sons are unfortunately outside the scope of this essay. Clare Downham says simply that ‘none of these accounts is credible’.[23] She adds: ‘While medieval writers seem to have been as interested as modern historians about Ívarr’s origins, it is perhaps wiser to accept that we do not know what these really were.’[24] This is of course worthy and understandable scholarly caution, but maybe we can suggest something more.

Alex Woolf has highlighted the fact that in chapters 10 and 14 of the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, an early eleventh century compilation possibly based on earlier sources,[25] there are two references to Ubba, ‘an associate, and (according to Geoffrey Gaimer) brother, of Ívarr, as dux of the Frisians’.[26]

Chapter 10: For Ubba dux of the Frisians, with a great army of Danes, came into the kingdom and on Palm Sunday approached the city.

Chapter 14: The army which Ubba dux of the Frisians and Healfdene King of the Danes had led into England divided into three parts; one rebuilt the city of York, cultivated the surrounding land and stayed there.[27]

What early Viking Dublin might have looked like

What early Viking Dublin might have looked like

One of the unfortunate tendencies of modern historiography is that events tend to become geographically compartmentalized. Some English historians of the Viking Age tend not to comment on events outside England. Where they do fully take account of information from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, then the concentration is still on Britain and Ireland and events around the Irish Sea.  French historians show a similar tendency when things happen outside the Frankish empire. But the early viking raids and settlements in Europe were all related in some way, they were not separate national events. Large viking fleets and armies were expensive and rare things. There were arguably never more than two significant Scandinavian fleets in existence at any one time, and this certainly includes the mid-800s. This is one reason why I believe that Alex Woolf is probably right when he suggests a strong connection between Ívarr and his family and Frisia. Regarding the Great Army Woolf says:

It is now generally agreed that they arrived in Britain directly from Ireland where Ívarr, the senior partner by 865, had been active for at least a decade.[28]

Having discussed the ‘Black Gentiles’ (or ‘Black Foreigners’) in Ireland, led by  Ívarr and his putative brother Óláfr, Woolf goes in to say:

It seems likely the Black Gentiles approached Ireland around the southern end of Britain and they may have been a portion of the Danish force described as assaulting Frisia in the Annals of St Bertin under the year 850, and perhaps even the same portion of that fleet, comprising 350 ships, which entered the Thames early in 851, sacking Canterbury and London and defeating Beorhtwulf of Mercia in pitched battle before being defeated in turn by the West Saxon Æthelwulf and Æthelbald.[29]

He adds that ‘the suspicion that the great army was in origin a portion of the force Rorik led to Frisia in 850’ finds support in the two mentions of Ubba in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto referred to above.

The Vikings plunder Dorestad

The Vikings plunder Dorestad

I find this reasoning compelling. Simon Coupland has analysed who was involved in Frisia at the time, and where, in his excellent article From poachers to gamekeepers: Scandinavian warlords and Carolingian kings; readers are encouraged to consult this work.[30] Regarding Woolf’s suggestion that Ívarr and his kinsmen might have come from Frisia, and might indeed have been the vikings who appeared in the Thames in the year 851, this gains strong circumstantial support from the generally reliable Frankish Annals of St Bertin, which under the year 850 say:

Hárekr, king of the Norsemen, was attacked by two members of his family and war ensued. They were induced to make peace by a partition of the realm. Hrœrekr, the nephew of Haraldr, who had recently defected from Lothar, raised whole armies of Norsemen with a vast number of ships and laid waste Frisia and the island of Betuwe and other places in that neighbourhood by sailing up the Rhine and the Waal. Lothar, since he could not crush him, received him into his allegiance and granted him Dorestad and other counties. Another band of Norsemen plundered the inhabitants of Mempisc, Thérouanne and other coastal districts, while yet others attacked the island of Britain and the English but they were beaten by the English with the aid of our Lord Jesus Christ.[31]

Note the final sentence says that ‘while yet others attacked the island of Britain and the English but they were beaten by the English with the aid of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Norse fleet

Norse fleet

The attack up the Thames in 851 was the only appearance of Scandinavians in Britain in this or indeed the previous year; it is pretty obviously the attack referred to in the Annals of St Bertin. The attack was indeed ‘beaten by the English’. As we have seen, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle reported for 851: ‘The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames…. the West-Saxon army fought with them at Ockley, and made the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported to this present day. There also they obtained the victory.’

Some additional, though not critical, support for the view that the Scandinavians who arrived in the Thames in 851 came from Frisia is the name Scaldingi. As Alex Woolf says, the name Scaldingi probably means people of the Scald, i.e. the region of the River Scheldt in Frisia. It is the name given three times in the Historia de sancto Cuthberto when referring to the leaders of to the Great Army, Hálfdan and Ívarr. For example: ‘Scaldingi venirent in Anglicam terram dederunt Ceolvulfus rex et episcopus Esred… ‘[32]

I will quote Alex Woolf’s conjecture in full:

Belgian Vikings?

It is possible that we should imagine Ubba as coming directly from Frisia to join his ’Irish’ kinsmen in England. The term Scalding, used in several places in the Historia as the descriptor for what the Chronicle calls mycel here, ‘the Great Army’, seems to mean ‘people from the River Scheldt’. This river is called Scald in Old English and Old East Flemish, and Scaldis in Latin, and may indicate that, within Frisia, Ubba came specifically from the island of Walcheren which lies in the mouth of the Scheldt. Walcheren was occupied by Danes for much of the ninth century, following the Frankish King Lothar’s grant of the island to the exiled Danish Prince Harold in 841. Lothar’s intention was that Harold would act as a poacher come gamekeeper and defend the coast against other Scandinavian raiders. If this identification of the Great Army is correct then it suggests that the core of the ‘Black Gentile’ force had left the Scheldt fourteen years before arriving in England and there is little evidence that they would make any attempt to settle down for a further decade. If they were indeed part of Harold’s settlement on the Scheldt then they had left Denmark nearly a quarter of a century before arriving in England. Many of them had presumably been born in Frisia. If this is the case then these ‘Danes’ had been cohabiting with Christians speaking a West Germanic dialect almost identical to Old English for a very long time. This may explain, in part, their skill at playing the system. The settlement on Walcheren survived, in one form or another, until about 915.[33]

Walcheren 1573

Walcheren 1573

Now the mention of ‘Belgian Vikings’ is a little anachronistic as ‘Belgium’ didn’t really exist until 1830. Although Walcheren is certainly ‘Frisian’ it is now located in the Netherlands. Yet the island of Walcheren and Frisia in general were without any doubt pivotal places for the Scandinavians at this time. Walcheren was for a long time perhaps the most important base and lair for Scandinavian fleets and armies along the North Sea coast.

The equation of Scaldingi with Danes from the river and estuary of the Scheldt (where Walcheren is situated) was proposed by Felix Lieberman in 1925[34] and is based, in part, on an entry in the Annals of Lindisfarne for 911 referring to the viking Rollo taking possession of Normandy: ‘Scaldi Rollo duce possident Normanniam.’[35] This reading has not been uncontested. An alternative view sees Scaldi and Scaldingi as being derived from a hypothesized (and unrecorded) ninth-century Old Norse word *skealdur meaning ‘shieldmen’. Roberta Frank says: ‘We can be fairly confident that Scaldingi means Scyldingas “shieldmen” or “descendants of Scyld” and not “men of the Scheldt… “’ [36]

shieldI find this stretching onomastics a little too far, but it could be true. In addition, calling only this one group of vikings ‘shieldmen’ makes no historical sense – the Anglo-Saxons and Celts had shields too, why were the vikings’ shields different enough for them to bestow a name on the warriors themselves?[37]

As Alex Woolf says, the River Scheldt ‘is called Scald in Old English and Old East Flemish, and Scaldis in Latin’. In addition, the author of the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, whether Simeon of Durham or not,uses Scaldingi only when referring to Hálfdan and his brother Ívarr, elsewhere when he talks of the vikings he never uses this word.

Even if Scaldingi doesn’t mean ‘people from the River Scheldt’, the fact that Ubba was a ‘duke’ of the Frisians strongly implies that he had come with his fleet from Frisia, and also in all likelihood from the viking base on the island of Walcheren. If Ívarr, Óláfr, Hálfdan and Asl were his brothers, as our sources strongly suggest they were, then the Great Army of 865 was indeed a ‘family enterprise’ as Clare Downham puts it. This would imply that Ívarr, Óláfr and Asl, the ‘three kings of the foreigners’ whose activities are repeatedly recorded from 853 onwards in the Irish chronicles, had originally come from Frisia. If they really were the leaders of that part of the Frisian-based viking fleet that the Annals of St Bertin and The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tell us arrived in the Thames in 851 then, as Alex Woolf suggests, it is more than likely that following their defeat at the hands of King Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald they moved on to Ireland, and from there ‘The Dynasty of Ívarr’ spread.

The timing of this move from the Thames to Ireland makes sense. Clare Downham writes:

Then in 851 a band of ‘Dark Foreigners’ arrived in Dublin and inflicted a great slaughter on the ‘Far Foreigners’… In 852, the ‘dark foreigners’ defeated the ‘fair foreigners’ in battle at Carlingford Lough. Then in 853 Óláfr son of the king of Laithlinn arrived in Ireland, and the vikings in Ireland submitted to him. This Óláfr was a kinsman, and perhaps more specifically a brother, of Ívarr.[38]

downham 2As Óláfr arrived in Ireland in 853 then the dark foreigners who had come two years before in 851 might have been led by Ívarr and/or possibly his brothers Asl and Hálfdan. We don’t know the brothers’ respective ages, but certainly Ívarr and Óláfr, the ‘son of the king of Laithlinn’, were the senior family partners in the years to come.[39]

Actually the Scandinavian arrivals in Dublin of 851 and 853 weren’t the first time these foreigners had appeared in Ireland. In 848, a viking leader called Tomrar/Thorir ‘was slain in battle in Leinster’. He was said to be a deputy or heir of the king of Laithlinn and was thus linked in some way with Óláfr, ‘the son of the king of Laithlinn’, who came in 853.[40]

In summary, if all this conjecture is true then the proximate origin of Ívarr’s dynasty, which played such an important role in Ireland and Britain for the next hundred years, was Frisia, and in all likelihood they had arrived from the important viking base on the island of Walcheren. Many other viking raiders in Europe at the time set out from here too; to give just one example, the Annals of Fulda tell of what became of another part of the Frisian fleet that split in 850:

The Norsemen under their leader Guðröðr came up the Seine and plundered Charles’s kingdom. Lothar was called to help with their expulsion, and thought that he was to come with his men to fight, but Charles changed his plan secretly, received Guðröðr with his men into the alliance of his kingdom and gave them land to live on. Lothar, seeing that his coming was pointless, returned to his own lands.[41]

Danish or Norwegian?

I don’t want to get into the hoary question of which of the vikings who came to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were ‘Danish’ and which were ‘Norwegian’.[42] At the time we are talking about terms such as ‘Nordmanni’ (Northmen) and ‘Danes’ were often (but not always) used pretty much interchangeably by both English and Frankish chroniclers. In Ireland the old identification of Dubgaill (dark/black foreigners) as Danish and the earlier Finngaill (fair/white foreigners’) as Norwegians is no longer supported by most historians; ‘new’ and ‘old’ now being the preferred interpretations.[43]

In the first half of the ninth century Norway didn’t really exist as a political entity and the area of Vik around the Oslo Fjord was for a long time part of the kingdom of Denmark. As the Danish historian Else Roesdahl, among others, has shown, viking fleets and armies were very often ‘multinational’ in their composition.[44] This is not to deny that many of the Scandinavians who raided and settled in the British isles, particularly in the early years and particularly in Ireland and Scotland, came from the south-west coast of what is now Norway, but if the proximate  origin of Ívarr’s ‘family enterprise’ was Frisia, as suggested here, then it is clear that his dynasty and the initial Scandinavian settlement of England was primarily a Danish affair because the Vikings in Frisia were most likely ‘Danes’ – but included no doubt important elements from the Vik area of Norway, from where some suggest we get the word Viking.

vikings 5

Notes and references:

[1] S. W. Partington, The Danes in Lancashire and Yorkshire, London 1909, pp. 3 & 89.

[2] Clare Downham, Vikings in England to A.D. 1016, in Stefan Brink, The Viking World, 2011.

[3] Of course the Frisian Vikings originally came from Scandinavia, from Denmark, but maybe including some from the Vik/Westfold area of present-day Norway.

[4] Dorothy Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol 1, ad 500-1042, London 1979.

[5] Janet Nelson, The Annals of St. Bertin, Manchester 1991.

[6] Whitelock, op. cit.

[7] Frank Stenton, Anglo Saxon England, 3rd ed., 2001.

[8] Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge, eds.  Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources, 1983, pp. 69, 231-2, 235.

[9] Whitelock, op. cit.

[10] See for example: Rory McTurk, Studies in Ragnars saga loðbrókar and Its Major Scandinavian Analogues, Medium Aevum Monographs 15, Oxford, 1991.

[11] Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland. The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014, 2007.

[12] Downham, op. cit.

[13] Downham, op. cit.

[14] Æthelweard, Chronicon, ed. and tr. Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Æthelweard, London, 1961.

[15] Abbo of Fleury, Life of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia before 870, Anglo-Saxon version in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, 9th edn. (Oxford, 1961), pp. 81-87, trans. K. Cutler.

[16] Whitelock, op. cit.

[17] Marios Costambeys, ‘Ívarr (d. 873), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

[18] The Church Historians of England – The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Vol. 111 – Part 11, trans. Joseph Stevenson, 1855, p. 654.

[19] Woolf, op. cit, p. 73.

[20] Robert Ferguson, The Hammer and the Cross, A New History of the Vikings, London, 2009, p. 135.

[21]  Costambeys, op.cit.

[22] Ben Waggoner, The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, 2009..

[23] Downham, op.cit. .

[24] Downham, op.cit..

[25] Ted Johnson South, Historia de sancto Cuthberto, A History of Saint Cuthbert and Record of His Patrimony, Cambridge, 2002.

[26] Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, 2007,  p.72.

[27] Quoted in Woolf, op.cit.

[28] Downham suggests that Óláfr was the senior.

[29] Woolf, op. cit..

[30] Simon Coupland, From poachers to gamekeepers: Scandinavian warlords and Carolingian kings, Early Medieval Europe, Vol 7 No 1, Oxford, 1998.

[31] Nelson, op. cit.

[32] Johnson South, op. cit.

[33] Woolf, op. cit.,

[34] Felix Lieberman, Die Name Scaldi fuer Daenen, Archiv 148, 1925.

[35] Annales Lindisfarnenses, ed. G. Pertz, MGH SS79, Leipzig, 1925, p. 506.

[36]  Roberta Frank, Skaldic Verse and the date of Beowulf, p..127, in The Dating of Beowulf, ed. Colin Chase, Toronto, 1997.

[37] In addition, the fact the later Viking and then Anglo-Saxon members of the Byzantine Varangian guard were often referred to as ‘axe-bearing’ barbarians doesn’t in my view make the ‘shieldmen’ derivation any more convincing. Of course this derivation of Scaldingi is also based on a later (c. 1200) legendary name given to the supposed founder of Ívarr’s dynasty, Skjoldr (OE Scyld), by Saxo Grammaticus in his ‘Danish History’.

[38] Downham, op.cit.

[39]  The later Norse Sagas tell us more about this.

[40] Downham, op.cit.

[41] The Annals of Fulda. Ninth-century Histories 2, trans. and annotated by Timothy Reuter, Manchester Medieval Sources series, Manchester, 1991.

[42] See: Clare Downham, Viking identities in Ireland: it’s not all black and white, Medieval Dublin vol 11, pp. 185-201, 2011.

[43] For example see: Downham, op.cit; Woolf, op.cit.

[44] Else Roesdahl, The Vikings, 1998.


Posted: October 18, 2014 in History
Tags: , ,

“The arrival of Captain Boycott, who has involuntarily added a new word to the language, is an event of something like international interest” – New York Tribune

Professional Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott

Professional Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott

When you hear the word Boycott what do you think about? Is it the likeable but rather annoying ‘professional’ Yorkshireman and cricketer Geoffrey Boycott? A man who never realised the best thing about Yorkshire is the motorway to Lancashire. Or do you think of the noun and the verb: ‘The Rugby Football Union has imposed a boycott on South Africa’; ‘The Unites States has boycotted the Moscow Olympics’?

Boycott is indeed a family name, but the noun and the verb came into our language from an interesting source.

According to James Redpath, the verb “to boycott” was coined by Father O’Malley in a discussion between them on 23 September 1880. The following is Redpath’s account:

I said, “I’m bothered about a word.”

“What is it?” asked Father John.

“Well,” I said, “When the people ostracise a land-grabber we call it social excommunication, but we ought to have an entirely different word to signify ostracism applied to a landlord or land-agent like Boycott. Ostracism won’t do – the peasantry would not know the meaning of the word – and I can’t think of any other.”

“No,” said Father John, “ostracism wouldn’t do”

He looked down, tapped his big forehead, and said: “How would it do to call it to Boycott him?”

Charles Cunningham Boycott from Vanity Fair in 1881

Charles Cunningham Boycott from Vanity Fair in 1881

What was this all about? Well it was all to do with the long fight of the Irish to gain ‘home rule’ from Britain. Wikipedia has an excellent article which begins as follows:

Charles Cunningham Boycott (12 March 1832 – 19 June 1897) was a British land agent whose ostracism by his local community in Ireland gave the English language the verb to boycott. He had served in the British Army 39th Foot, which brought him to Ireland. After retiring from the army, Boycott worked as a land agent for Lord Erne (John Crichton, 3rd Earl Erne), a landowner in the Lough Mask area of County Mayo.

In 1880, as part of its campaign for the Three Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale), the Irish Land League under Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt withdrew the local labour required to harvest the crops on Lord Erne’s estate and began a campaign of isolation against Boycott in the local community. This campaign included the refusal of shops in nearby Ballinrobe to serve him, and the withdrawal of laundry services. According to Boycott, the boy who carried his mail was threatened with violence if he continued.

The campaign against Boycott became a cause célèbre in the British press after he wrote a letter to The Times; newspapers sent correspondents to the West of Ireland to highlight what they viewed as the victimisation of a servant of a peer of the realm by Irish nationalists. Fifty Orangemen from County Cavan and County Monaghan travelled to Lord Erne’s estate to harvest the crops, while a regiment of troops and more than 1,000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary were deployed to protect the harvesters. The episode was estimated to have cost the British government and others at least £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops.

Boycott left Ireland on 1 December 1880 and in 1886 he became land agent for Hugh Adair’s Flixton estate in Suffolk. He died at the age of 65 on 19 June 1897 in his home in Flixton after an illness earlier that year.

Actually there’s much more to tell about this episode, particularly the rather typical reaction of the British government, but I’ll leave it here.

I was alerted to this little vignette by John O’Farrell in his fabulous book An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, truthfully subtitled Or 2000 years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge. O’Farrell says that he got a B in his O level History at Desborough Comprehensive (more than I did as I didn’t do O level History), but although all the reviews of the book stress how funny it is (which it certainly is) I have to say that it’s also damned good and spot-on history. You really should read it, especially if you don’t really read history books; academic historians could learn a lot.


Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

I learnt this nursery rhyme as a child. Maybe you did too? I had no idea what it meant, just as I had no idea of who the heck Mother Hubbard was. The funny thing is that nobody else knows either. If the rhyme has any basis in reality it’s probably connected with the Duke of York, Prince Frederick, and his defeat by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in Flanders in 1794. Certainly it’s got nothing to do with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who contested King Henry VI’s right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, although this has at times been claimed.

Actually it doesn’t much matter which of the many Dukes of York, if any of them, provided the historical seeds of the rhyme. If we want to be more realistic we could write:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And they never came down again.

This is what nobles do. The Duke of This or the Baron of That, the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor, they called themselves warriors but actually they were just armed and heavily armoured thugs. If they weren’t leading their men up the hill to their death, they were leading them in the slaughter of the enemy. Sometimes in these battles the nobles died too. But in the middle-ages, in the so-called Age of Chivalry, while they expected the common soldiers, their ‘men’, to be slaughtered without mercy, they expected that if they themselves were facing defeat they would be able to ‘yield’, to be taken prisoner, to be treated honourably while awaiting the collection of a huge ransom paid for their release. The ransom money of course had to be ground out of their ever-suffering tenants and serfs back at home. That is what the common people were for. They only entered the nobles’ consciousness for two reasons: As a resource to be exploited and taxed to maintain their extravagant life-styles and to supply the soldiers to help them fight their never ending squabbles and wars.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

Since the development and agriculture and the rise of Civilization this has been so. In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine, strangely still so loved by the Americans (who without a moment’s thought would call him a ‘Commie’ if he were around today), and less strangely by the French, aptly called the Norman conquerors of England ‘armed banditti’. The ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’.

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights, on their huge war-horses, loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”, where it would remain for centuries.

In the fifteenth century there was a lord in Cumberland called Lancelot Threlkeld who was pretty honest about what the common English people were for.

The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

This Lancelot Threlkeld, who ‘stocked’ tenants ‘to go with him to the wars’, was the son of another Lancelot who had married Margaret Clifford, the widow of Sir John Clifford, known variously as ‘the Butcher’, ‘Bloody Clifford’ and ‘Black-faced Clifford’. In  Henry VI, Shakespeare has him killing Richard, the third Duke of York, and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses.  John Clifford was soon killed by the Yorkists on 28 March 1461 at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, on the eve of the Battle of Towton, a brutal affair which brought Edward IV (Richard of York’s son) to the throne. He left a son called Henry who went into hiding and lived as a ‘shepherd’ for 28 years. I wrote about Henry ‘the Shepherd lord’ recently.

It is some of these fifteenth-century goings-on that will be the subject of my next article. For now I’d like to end on a lighter note. Did you ever learn the mnemonic ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow? I was also once taught a rhyme to help remember this: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. The Richard here being the one Shakespeare has killed by John Clifford ‘the Butcher’ at Wakefield.

Rainbow- - ROYGBIV

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

genetics dia 2

But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

genetics dia 1

How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

genetics page 1

genetics page 2

genetics page 3

genetics page 4

‘The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,
Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;
Bands of armed robbers divide the land
And make of the Freeman a slave.’

For my taste there is only one thing that can match, and sometimes surpass, English poetry, and that is German poetry. In the best hands the way the German language can combine sensitivity with earthly power and grittiness is unrivalled. My own favourite German poet is the ‘Romantic’ Heinrich Heine. While rereading some of his poems, a thing I haven’t done for many a long year, I was delighted to find his 1851 poem Schlachtfeld bei Hastings – Battlefield at Hastings. The sad conquest of England in 1066 is a subject close to my heart, and Heine’s poem is the most evocative poetic telling of that sad day I have ever read.

I wanted to share this poem, but how best could I do so for those who don’t understand German? All literature loses something in translation, with poetry this is even more so. I first found an English translation by Margaret Armour, but although it was a valiant effort it did quite often miss the punch of the original, becoming at times anodyne. Armour, for example, translates Heine’s “Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie” as “The veriest rascals from Normandy”, which not only misses the singular nature of Heine’s original – he was referring to William himself – but makes the Normans sound like naughty children at a birthday party rather than the bunch of brutal thugs they were. As the great Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense in 1776, “The French bastard” was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine

And then I found a translation which appeared in Vienna in 1854, only slightly after the original. It was the work of Julian Fane. Whoever Julian was his translation is sublime. I reproduce Fane’s translation below, followed, for those who understand German, by Heine’s even more sublime original.

Just a couple of words by way of context. In 1066 King Harold and his English army of housecarls and warriors had just defeated another Norwegian invasion at Stamford Bridge in the north of England, when they heard that Norman duke William had landed with his army on the south coast, intent on seizing the country. Harold’s army, mauled, weakened and tired, immediately marched two hundred miles south. When they arrived, probably unwisely, Harold decided to immediately fight again, near to Hastings. We all know the outcome: after much mutual slaughter the English lost and Harold was killed – though not in all likelihood by an arrow in the eye.

The Normans had horribly mutilated Harold’s body along with the bodies of many other English dead. Harold’s mother, so the story goes, pleaded with William to surrender her son’s body for burial. William refused, even though Harold’s mother had offered her son’s weight in gold. The local monks of Waltham Abbey wanted to bury Harold in a decent Christian way, but given the piles of dead and mutilated fallen on the battlefield, they couldn’t identify Harold’s body. They went to find Harold’s long-term mistress, the mother of most of his children, Edith the Fair, also known as Edith Swan-neck. Edith walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by the markings on his body known only to her. It was because of Edith the Fair’s identification of Harold’s body that he was finally given a Christian burial.

This is the story that Heinrich Heine tells in his poem.

The battle-field at Hastings

Translated by Julian Fane, 1854, Vienna

Deep sighed the Abbot when the news
Reached Waltham’s courts that day,
That piteously on Hastings’ field
King Harold lifeless lay.

Two Monks, Asgod and Ailric named,
Dispatched he to the plain,
That they might seek king Harold’s corpse,
At Hastings ‘mongst the slain.

The Monks they issued sadly forth ,
And sad their steps retrace:
„Father, loathesome to us is the World,”
„Fortune forsakes our race.”

„The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,”
„Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;”
„Bands of armed robbers divide the land”
„And make of the Freeman a slave.”

„The raggedest Boor from Normandy”
„Now lords it o’er Britain’s Isle;”
„A tailor from Bayeux, gold bespurred,”
„I saw one ride and smile.”

„Woe now to every Saxon born!”
„Ye Saxon Saints beware,”
„Lest, Heaven itself unsafe, the scourge”
„Pursue and spurn you there.”

„Now know we what disastrous doom”
„That comet should forebode,”
„Which erst, blood-red, through blackest Heaven”
„On fiery besom rode.”

„At Hastings hath that evil star”
„Its evil portent wrought!”
„Thither we went, to the battle-field,”
„And ‘mongst the slain we sought.”

„We sought to left, we sought to right,”
„Till, every hope resigned,”
„We left the field, and Harold the king,”
„His corpse we did not find.”

Asgdd and Ailric so they spake;
His hands the Abbot clasped,
Down sat, despairing, sunk in thought,
Then sighed and said at last:

„At Grendelfield, near Bardenstone,”
„In the wood’s deepest dell,”
„Lone in a lonely pauper-cot”
„Doth swan-necked Edith dwell.”

„ ‘Swan-necked’, men named her — for that erst”
„Her neck, of smoothest pearl,”
„Was swan-like arched — and Harold the king”
„He loved the comely girl.”

„Her hath he loved and cherished and kissed,”
„And, lastly, abandoned, forgot;”
„The years roll by — full sixteen years”
„Have watched her widowed lot.”

„Brothers, to her betake yourselves,”
„And with her back return”
„To Hasting’s field; this woman’s glance”
„Will there the king discern.”

„Hither then to the Abbey-church”
„Do ye the body bring,”
„That we may yield it Christian rite,”
„And for the soul may sing.”

The Monks at midnight reached the cot
Deep in the dark wood’s hollow;
„Wake, swan-necked Edith, and forthwith”
„Prepare our steps to follow!”

„Fate willed the Duke of Normandy”
„The fatal day should gain,”
„And on the field at Hastings lies”
„King Harold ‘mongst the slain.”

„Come with us now to Hastings — there”
„We’ll seek the corpse of the king,”
„And bring it back to the Abbey-church,”
„As the Abbot bade us bring.”

No word the swan-necked Edith spake;
Her cloak about her cast,
She followed the Monks; her grizzly hair
It fluttered wild in the blast.

Barefooted, poor wretch, she followed o’er marsh,
Through brushwood and briar she flew:
Hastings at day-break already they reached,
With its white chalk-cliff’s in view.

The fog that folded the battle-field,
As t’were in a snow-white shroud,
Rose slowly, the ravens flapped their wings
And horribly croaked and loud.

Some thousand corpses there lay strewn.
In heaps on the red earth grounded,
Stripped-stark, beplundered, mangled and maimed,
With carrion-horse confounded.

The swan-necked Edith waded on
Through blood with unsandalled foot;
Meanwhile like darts from her staring eye
The searchful glances shoot.

She searched to left, she searched to right,
And oft she turned undaunted
To scare the famished ravens off;
The monks behind her panted.

The whole drear Day had watched her search,
The stars still see her seek;
Suddenly from the woman’s lips
Breaks shrill a terrible shriek:

Discovered hath Edith the corpse of the king!
No longer need she seek;
No word she spake, she wept no tear,
She kissed the pale, pale cheek.

She kissed the brow, she kissed the lips,
Her arms about him pressed,
She kissed the deep wound blood-besmeared
Upon her monarch’s breast.

And at the shoulder looked she too —
And them she kissed contented —
Three little scars, joy-wounds her love In
Passion’s hour indented.

Meanwhile the Monks from out the wood
Some twisted branches bring;
This was the leafy bier whereon
They laid their slaughtered king.

They bore him towards the Abbey-church
Whose aisles his bones should cover;
The swan-necked Edith followed close
The pale corpse of her lover.

She sang the Burial-psalm in notes
Of meek and childlike woe;
Dismal it sounded through the night —
The muttering monks prayed low

Schlachtfeld bei Hastings

Der Abt von Waltham seufzte tief,
Als er die Kunde vernommen,
Daß König Harold elendiglich
Bei Hastings umgekommen.

Zwei Mönche, Asgod und Ailrik genannt,
Die schickt’ er aus als Boten,
Sie sollten suchen die Leiche Harolds
Bei Hastings unter den Toten.

Die Mönche gingen traurig fort
Und kehrten traurig zurücke:
»Hochwürdiger Vater, die Welt ist uns gram,
Wir sind verlassen vom Glücke.

Gefallen ist der beßre Mann,
Es siegte der Bankert, der schlechte,
Gewappnete Diebe verteilen das Land
Und machen den Freiling zum Knechte.

Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie
Wird Lord auf der Insel der Briten;
Ich sah einen Schneider aus Bayeux, er kam
Mit goldnen Sporen geritten.

Weh dem, der jetzt ein Sachse ist!
Ihr Sachsenheilige droben
Im Himmelreich, nehmt euch in acht,
Ihr seid der Schmach nicht enthoben.

Jetzt wissen wir, was bedeutet hat
Der große Komet, der heuer
Blutrot am nächtlichen Himmel ritt
Auf einem Besen von Feuer.

Bei Hastings in Erfüllung ging
Des Unsterns böses Zeichen,
Wir waren auf dem Schlachtfeld dort
Und suchten unter den Leichen.

Wir suchten hin, wir suchten her,
Bis alle Hoffnung verschwunden -
Den Leichnam des toten Königs Harold,
Wir haben ihn nicht gefunden.«

Asgod und Ailrik sprachen also;
Der Abt rang jammernd die Hände,
Versank in tiefe Nachdenklichkeit
Und sprach mit Seufzen am Ende:

»Zu Grendelfield am Bardenstein,
Just in des Waldes Mitte,
Da wohnet Edith Schwanenhals
In einer dürft’gen Hütte.

Man hieß sie Edith Schwanenhals,
Weil wie der Hals der Schwäne
Ihr Nacken war; der König Harold,
Er liebte die junge Schöne.

Er hat sie geliebt, geküßt und geherzt,
Und endlich verlassen, vergessen.
Die Zeit verfließt; wohl sechzehn Jahr’
Verflossen unterdessen.

Begebt euch, Brüder, zu diesem Weib
Und laßt sie mit euch gehen
Zurück nach Hastings, der Blick des Weibs
Wird dort den König erspähen.

Nach Waltham-Abtei hierher alsdann
Sollt ihr die Leiche bringen,
Damit wir christlich bestatten den Leib
Und für die Seele singen.«

Um Mitternacht gelangten schon
Die Boten zur Hütte im Walde:
»Erwache, Edith Schwanenhals,
Und folge uns alsbalde.

Der Herzog der Normannen hat
Den Sieg davongetragen,
Und auf dem Feld bei Hastings liegt
Der König Harold erschlagen.

Komm mit nach Hastings, wir suchen dort
Den Leichnam unter den Toten,
Und bringen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Wie uns der Abt geboten.«

Kein Wort sprach Edith Schwanenhals,
Sie schürzte sich geschwinde
Und folgte den Mönchen; ihr greisendes Haar,
Das flatterte wild im Winde.

Es folgte barfuß das arme Weib
Durch Sümpfe und Baumgestrüppe.
Bei Tagesanbruch gewahrten sie schon
Zu Hastings die kreidige Klippe.

Der Nebel, der das Schlachtfeld bedeckt
Als wie ein weißes Leilich,
Zerfloß allmählich; es flatterten auf
Die Dohlen und krächzten abscheulich.

Viel tausend Leichen lagen dort
Erbärmlich auf blutiger Erde,
Nackt ausgeplündert, verstümmelt, zerfleischt,
Daneben die Äser der Pferde.

Es wadete Edith Schwanenhals
Im Blute mit nackten Füßen;
Wie Pfeile aus ihrem stieren Aug’
Die forschenden Blicke schießen.

Sie suchte hin, sie suchte her,
Oft mußte sie mühsam verscheuchen
Die fraßbegierige Rabenschar;
Die Mönche hinter ihr keuchen.

Sie suchte schon den ganzen Tag,
Es ward schon Abend – plötzlich
Bricht aus der Brust des armen Weibs
Ein geller Schrei, entsetzlich.

Gefunden hat Edith Schwanenhals
Des toten Königs Leiche.
Sie sprach kein Wort, sie weinte nicht,
Sie küßte das Antlitz, das bleiche.

Sie küßte die Stirne, sie küßte den Mund,
Sie hielt ihn fest umschlossen;
Sie küßte auf des Königs Brust
Die Wunde blutumflossen.

Auf seiner Schulter erblickt sie auch -
Und sie bedeckt sie mit Küssen -
Drei kleine Narben, Denkmäler der Lust,
Die sie einst hineingebissen.

Die Mönche konnten mittlerweil’
Baumstämme zusammenfugen;
Das war die Bahre, worauf sie alsdann
Den toten König trugen.

Sie trugen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Daß man ihn dort begrübe;
Es folgte Edith Schwanenhals
Der Leiche ihrer Liebe.

Sie sang die Totenlitanei’n
In kindisch frommer Weise;
Das klang so schauerlich in der Nacht -
Die Mönche beteten leise. -

Edith discovering the body of Harold

Edith discovering the body of Harold

‘I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory… I have longer to please the dead than please the living here.’ Antigone, Sophocles.

Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, unfurled the Royal Banner in Carlisle in February 1537. He was declaring martial law in the North of England. Martial law wasn’t really law at all; it was simply a suspension of the accepted process and procedures of English law. It meant that anyone taking part in or supporting a rebellion, or defying the crown in any way, could be summarily dealt with as a traitor. They could be executed without the bother or uncertainties of a jury trial.

Royal Banner of Henry the Eighth

Royal Banner of Henry the Eighth

Howard had taken it upon himself to ‘unfurl the banner’ in the name of King Henry VIII, whose authority had been challenged by the recent uprising in Lincoln, by the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham and by a serious rebellion in Westmorland and Cumberland. Henry had broken with Rome and, advised by the unpopular Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, was setting about dissolving and robbing catholic England’s monasteries and abbeys. He was also increasing the tax burden of the people and encouraging the theft of common land via private enclosure. All of these measures were deeply unpopular over great swathes of the country. They were obviously resented and resisted by monks, friars and other clergymen, but also by gentry and commoners as well – though for different reasons.

The uprising in Lincoln in late 1536 had managed to muster thousands of people to the cause but had ended after just two weeks. Just as the King’s representatives were about to wreak their revenge on the Lincoln rebels, a more serious challenge arose: the people of Yorkshire and surrounding parts of Northumberland, Durham and Lancashire had also rebelled. Under the leadership of lawyer Robert Aske, this was essentially a conservative protest and one that the rebels wanted, if at all possible, to keep non-violent. Aske himself christened it the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, a name that perhaps unfortunately has stuck. The rebels didn’t want to challenge the King’s right to rule, rather they wanted to pressure him to stop the dissolution of the monasteries, restore the link with Rome and suppress the spread of Lutheran versions of Protestantism. They also hoped that some of Henry’s hated advisers would be removed, particularly Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, who they blamed for both the religious policies and, as importantly, their own worsening economic plight.

The Holy Wounds Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

The Holy Wounds Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

In this sense the Pilgrimage of Grace was both a social and a religious revolt. The impetus came from below, from the ‘commoners’, but some of the local gentry joined in willingly, while others needed to be coerced.

Under Aske’s leadership, the leaders of the rebellion called themselves ‘Captains of Poverty’ or sometimes, in the case of monks and priests, ‘Chaplains of Poverty’. These captains started to call out the northern ‘host’, usually a thing done by the king or the local barons. Their numbers swelled, to reach around 28.000 – 35,000 by October 1536. They were disciplined and organized and more than enough to face down, and defeat if necessary, the 4,000 mercenary troops, under the Duke of Norfolk, who Henry had sent to put them down. The rebels had captured Pontefract castle without much trouble.

Robert Aske - Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

Robert Aske – Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

This isn’t the place to retell the events and causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace. There are many fine histories of what happened. In brief, Norfolk knew he couldn’t defeat the rebels by force of arms, so he prevaricated and seemed to play along with, even sympathize with, their demands. A truce was called on 27 October at Doncaster Bridge and on 6 December Norfolk promised a royal pardon in the name of the King. He also promised that many of the rebels’ demands would be met. Eventually, and not without great deliberation, the northern rebel host dispersed and the Pilgrimage was effectively over. It is only in retrospect that we can judge them naive.

All this was not to Henry’s liking. Henry’s instinctive and invariable reaction was always to crush any opposition, not to make concessions or compromises. He soon reneged on the pardon and had many of the leaders or sympathizers of the revolt executed. He never took England back to Rome and he redoubled his drive to dissolve the monasteries and expropriate and appropriate their considerable wealth.

Let us return to events in Westmorland or Cumberland (which together I rather anachronistically will call Cumbria). This was a region that the Duke of Norfolk himself was to call the ‘poorest shire in the realm’. During the Pilgrimage appeals had been made to the people of these counties to join in and to take the Pilgrims’ Oath. Local ‘Captains’ were appointed and some of them were to go to Yorkshire on at least two occasions to consult with Robert Aske and the other leaders. Two of the most prominent Cumbrian captains were Nicholas Musgrave and Robert Pullen, but several others went as well.

The Cumbrian captains started to gather support. To try to remain anonymous they usually called themselves ‘Captain Poverty’ – like their Yorkshire colleagues. Eventually a force of 15,000 was gathered and was planning to march on Carlisle, the administrative and military centre of the ‘West Marches’. But before they could progress any further, news came that the Pilgrimage was over and, despite the fact that Sir Francis Bigod and John Hallam tried to resurrect it, unsuccessfully as it turned out, the Cumbrian rebel host disbanded and returned home.

Over Christmas 1536, and into the early New Year, the commoners started to fear that their local gentry had abandoned them and that they had slipped off to London to declare their allegiance to King Henry. They were right. Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds wrote in 1915, in their still seminal two volume study The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy:

The chief reason for the agitation was the departure of so many gentlemen to court. The commons distrusted the King, who might have the gentlemen beheaded, and they distrusted the gentle men, who might betray them to the King. When the gentlemen were away, the bailiffs and other officers found it impossible to keep order.

And that might have been that were it not for Henry’s reprisals. He wanted all the leaders of the Pilgrimage hunted down and executed as traitors. In early January 1537, it became known that ‘Captains’ Nicholas Musgrave and Thomas Tibbey were in the Westmorland town of Kirkby Stephen. On 6 January, Thomas Clifford, the ‘bastard son’ of Henry Clifford, the first earl of Cumberland, was sent to the town to capture them. ‘Musgrave was warned and with Thomas Tibbey he took refuge in the church steeple, so defensible a position that Clifford was obliged to withdraw without his prisoners’. This, we are told, ‘stirred the country greatly’. A watch was to be kept for them in every town. ‘The men of Kirkby Stephen plucked down all the enclosures in their parish and sent orders to the surrounding parishes to follow their example.’

Things started to get tense. In Cumberland, one of the King’s men, Sir Thomas Curwen, wrote that ‘The west parts, from Plumland to Muncaster, is all a flutter’. He told how ‘on Saturday 13 January a servant of Dr Legh came to Muncaster. The whole country rose and made him prisoner. He was carried to Egremont and thence to Cockermouth. A great crowd filled the market-place, crying, “Strike off his head!” and “Stick him!”

Kirkby Stephen Church

Kirkby Stephen Church

The region was in ferment and it only needed a spark to set it alight. This spark was provided on 14 February when ‘bastard’ Thomas Clifford returned to Kirkby Stephen, once again trying to capture Musgrave and Tibbey. This time he came with a group of ‘mosstroopers from the waters of Esk and Line ’. These were rough border reivers, ‘strong thieves of the westlands’, with a penchant for violence.

Musgrave and Tibbey fled to their old fastness in the steeple, and there defied their pursuers. The townsfolk took no part either for or against the rebels, but while Clifford and some of his men were debating how to take their quarry, the rest of the riders, following their inbred vocation, fell to plundering. This was more than flesh and blood could bear. The burgesses caught up their weapons and fell upon the spoilers, causing a timely diversion in favour of the men in the steeple. Scattered about the narrow streets of the town, the horsemen were at a disadvantage and soon showed that their prowess was not equal to their thievishness. Two of the townsmen were killed in the skirmish, but their enraged fellows drove the borderers from the town and followed up their retreat until they were forced to take refuge in Brougham Castle.

Moss Troopers

Moss Troopers

Musgrave and Tibbey had escaped again. But having witnessed the brutality of the King’s forces, the local people realized that they would get no quarter or justice either from the King or the local nobility. They could expect no fair hearing of their economic or other grievances. ‘The commons saw that they were committed to a new rebellion, although they had risen in defence of their property; indeed, a panic seems to have spread through the countryside that they would all be treated like the people of Kirkby Stephen. The two captains raised all the surrounding country and sent the following summons to the bailiff of Kendal, whom they knew to be on their side’:

To the Constable of Mellynge. ‘Be yt knowen unto you Welbelovyd bretheren in god this same xii day of februarii at morn was unbelapped on every syde with our enimys the Captayne of Carlylle and gentylmen of our Cuntrie of Westrnerlonde and haithe destrowed and slayn many our bretheren and neghtbers. Wherfore we desyre you for ayde and helpe accordyng to your othes and as ye wyll have helpe of us if your cause requyre, as god forbede. this tuysday, We comande you every one to be at Kendall afore Eight of the clok or els we ar lykly to be destrowed. Ever more gentyll brether unto your helpyng honds. Captayn of Povertie. ‘

None of the local gentry joined them and very few priests. They were more afraid of losing their aristocratic privileges and the wrath of the King than they were concerned about Henry’s religious reforms. The ‘commoners’ were on their own. Their plans were simple. ‘They had long before decided that the first step in case of a new rebellion was to seize Carlisle.’

Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk

The Duke of Norfolk was still in Yorkshire continuing his clean-up and reprisals after the Pilgrimage of Grace. Carlisle was commanded by Sir John Lowther, Thomas Clifford and John Barnsfeld. They were out-numbered and they were worried. They knew that they needed the help of Sir Christopher Dacre, who, in the absence of his nephew Lord William Dacre welded the most power in the area. Christopher Dacre’s loyalty to the crown was still much in doubt and the Clifford and Dacre families were old adversaries – enemies even. On 15 February the three Carlisle commanders wrote to Sir Christopher Dacre:

In the King our sovereign lord’s name we command you that ye with as many as ye trust to be of the King’s part and yours, come unto this the King’s castle in all goodly haste possible, for as we are informed the commons will be this day upon the broad field … further that ye leave the landserjeant with the prickers of Gillisland so that he and they may resist the King’s rebels if the said prickers of Gillesland will take his part, or else to bring him … and that ye come yourself in goodly haste. (Castle, of Carlisle, 15 February at 10 hours.)

When the Duke of Norfolk, who was in Richmond, heard about the danger in Cumbria, he too wrote to Dacre on the same day:

Cousin Dacres, I know not whether you received the letter I sent you yesterday. I hear those commons now assembled draw towards Carlisle, and doubt not you will gather such company as you may trust and, after your accustomed manner, use those rebels in a way to deserve the King’s thanks and to aid your nephew, my very friend, whom I look for every hour. I will not instruct you what ye shall do, for ye know better than I. Spare for no reasonable wages, for I will pay all. And spare not frankly to slay plenty of these false rebels; and make true mine old sayings, that ‘Sir Christopher Dacre is a true knight to his sovereign lord, an hardy knight, and a man of war’. Pinch now no courtesy to shed blood of false traitors; and be ye busy on the one side, and ye may be sure the duke of Norfolk will come on the other. Finally, now, Sir Christopher, or never. (Richmond, 15 Feb.) Your loving cousin if ye do well now, or else enemy for ever.

Norfolk had written to King the previous day informing Henry that ‘when Cumberland’s bastard son, deputy captain of Carlisle, came to take two traitors at Kirkby Stephen, they keeping the steeple, his horsemen, in great part strong thieves of the Westlands, began to spoil the town, and the inhabitants rose to defend both their goods and the traitors. A skirmish ensued, in which one or two rebels were slain, and Thomas my lord’s bastard son, was forced to retire to Browham (Brougham) castle. The country has since risen, some say 4,000 or 5,000 together, and are sending for others to aid them.’

Norfolk thought that ‘no such thing would have occurred if this enterprise had been handled as it was promised’.

By 16 February about 6,000 local Cumbrians were camped on Broadfield Moor, a few miles south of Carlisle. They were ‘more or less effectively armed and mounted’. They knew Carlisle was, as it has always been, the key to controlling the region. They didn’t have gentry leadership, but in no way were they a rabble, as too many histories have disparagingly called them. They were in fact the very same people, the same ‘host’, which the local barons would usually call out when they needed military support. Clifford and the other commanders of the town had been busy rallying the local ‘artisans’ to the defence of the town. The Cumbrian host didn’t really know how to go about attacking or besieging a fortified town.

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle

On Saturday 17 February, the host prepared for the assault on Carlisle. ‘The rebels carried a cross as their banner principal… It does not seem to have been such a vigorous attack as the word now implies. They approached within bow-shot, and showered arrows on the defenders who appeared on the city walls. This went on until they exhausted their supply of arrows, when they retired a little way to consider what to do next.’

After the failure of their attempt to take the town, the rebels were considering how best to attack again when, suddenly, Sir Christopher Dacre arrived on the scene with ‘five hundred border spearmen’ – called ‘prickers’. The commons broke and turned to flee. This emboldened the defenders and they sallied forth from Carlisle. Together with Dacre’s men they set about the now fleeing commoners. The mosstroopers were ‘in no mood to spare the countryfolk who had beaten them so ignominiously on Monday’.

The rejoicings in London were great. Sir Christopher Dacre was the hero of the hour. It was said that he had slain 700 rebels or more and taken the rest prisoners, hanging them up on every bush.

Exactly how many of the commoners were massacred is not known. Perhaps not the 700 reported. But compare this with the fact that in the whole of the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace (I exclude the later reprisals) there had only been one death – and that was accidental. Hundreds of prisoners were taken back to Carlisle, including it seems Thomas Tibbey, but not Nicholas Musgrave. The rest of the host fled back to their homes or went into hiding. Christopher Dacre had proved his loyalty and was later rewarded for his decisive intervention.

On the day of the attack and subsequent massacre, the Duke of Norfolk was still at Barnard’s Castle in Yorkshire and had raised 4,000 men – ‘everyone they could trust.’ But news soon reached him that this ‘splendid little army’ would not be needed. Norfolk was delighted. He wrote to King Henry that Christopher Dacre had ‘shown himself a noble knight’ and that ‘seven or eight hundred prisoners were taken.’ He was, he wrote, ‘about to travel in all haste to Carlisle to see execution done.’

Norfolk arrived at Carlisle on Monday 19 February. This is when he ‘unfurled the banner’ and imposed martial law, not just on Cumbria but on the whole of the North of England. He used the pretext of the Carlisle events to be better able to punish those involved in draconian fashion, as well to be able to more easily and brutally punish those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace itself. Norfolk reported that: ‘There were so many prisoners in the town that he found great difficulty in providing for their safe-keeping.’ ‘He wrote that night to the Council to promise that if he might go his own way for a month he would order things to the King s satisfaction. It would take some time, because he must himself be present at all the convictions and proceed by martial law, and there were many places to punish.’ He added, significantly, that ‘not a lord or gentleman in Cumberland and Westmorland could claim that his servants and tenants had not joined in the insurrection.’

Proclamations were issued which ‘commanded all who had been in rebellion to come to Carlisle and submit themselves humbly to the King’s mercy.’  ‘The country people began to straggle into the city in scattered, dejected bands. They had lost their horses, harness, and weapons in the chase; they were in instant fear of a traitor’s death for themselves, and of fire, plunder, and outrage for their homes and families.’ Norfolk wrote that ‘they were contrite enough to satisfy any tyrant’ and ‘if sufficient number of ropes might have been found (they) would have come with the same about their necks’

Taking advice from the local lords, Norfolk chose seventy-four of the ‘chief misdoers’. ‘That is of the braver and more determined of them, and turned the rest away without even a promise of pardon’.

On 21 February, Norfolk wrote to Thomas Cromwell: ‘The poor caitiffs who have returned home have departed without any promise of pardon but upon their good a bearing. God knows they may well be called poor caitiffs; for at their fleeing they lost horse, harness, and all they had upon them and what with the spoiling of them now and the gressing (taxing) of them so marvellously sore in time past and with increasing of lords’ rents by inclosings, and for lack of the persons of such as shall suffer, this border is sore weaked and specially Westmoreland; the more pity they should so deserve, and also that they have been so sore handled in times past, which, as I and all other here think, was the only cause of this rebellion.’

Norfolk knew that if he left justice to the mercy of local juries he probably wouldn’t be able to execute as many as both he and, importantly, the King and Thomas Cromwell wanted. ‘Many a great offender’, he said, would be acquitted if juries were called. He was quite honest about this. He later wrote to the King:

All the prisoners were condemned to die by law martial, the King’s banner being displayed. Not the fifth part would have been convicted by a jury. Some protested that they had been dragged into rebellion against their will. The most part had only one plea, saying, ‘I came out for fear of my life, and I came forth for fear of loss of all my goods, and I came forth for fear of burning of my house and destroying of my wife and children… A small excuse will be well believed here, where much affection and pity of neighbours doth reign. And, sir, though the number be nothing so great as their deserts did require to have suffered, yet I think the like number hath not been heard of put to execution at one time.

As the Dodds wrote: ‘They had not, in fact, turned against the law, they had risen to defend all that the law should have defended for them from Clifford’s police, the thieves of the Black Lands.’

Henry the Eighth

Henry the Eighth

Henry was pleased with what Norfolk and the defenders of Carlisle had done. His reply to Norfolk on the 22nd was blunt and brutal. He started with his thanks: ‘We have received your letters of the 16th, about the new assembly in Westmoreland, and your others of the 17th by Sir Ralph Evers, touching the valiant and faithful courage of Sir Chr. Dacres in the overthrow of the traitors who made assault upon Carlisle, reporting also the good service done by Thomas Clifford, and the perfect readiness of all the nobles and gentlemen in Yorkshire and those parts to have served in your company against them. We shall not forget your services, and are glad to hear also from sundry of our servants how you advance the truth, declaring the usurpation of the bishop of Rome, and how discreetly you paint those persons that call themselves religious in the colours of their hypocrisy, and we doubt not but the further you shall wade in the investigation of their behaviours the more you shall detest the great number of them and the less esteem the punishment of those culpable…  We desire you to thank those that were ready to have served us. We have thanked Sir Chr. Dacres in the letters which you shall receive herewith, and will shortly recompense him in a way to encourage others.’

Referring to Norfolk’s decision to declare martial law, Henry continued:

We approve of your proceedings in the displaying of our banner, which being now spread, till it is closed again, the course of our laws must give place to martial law… Our pleasure is, that before you shall close up our said banner again, you shall, in any wise, cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet, that have offended in this rebellion, as well by the hanging them up in trees, as by the quartering of them and the setting of their heads and quarters in every town, great and small, and in all such other places, as they may be a fearful spectacle to all other hereafter, that would practise any like mater.

Finally, as these troubles have been promoted by the monks and canons of those parts… you shall without pity or circumstance, now that our banner is displayed, cause the monks to be tied up without further delay or ceremony.

Anyone who had participated in the uprising and escaped was still pursued. On February 28, the earls of Sussex and Derby and Sir Herbert Fitzherbert wrote to the King from Warrington in Lancashire: ‘There came lately to Manchester one William Barret, a tanner dwelling in Steton in Craven, who declared to the people that my lord of Norfolk at this his being in Yorkshire would, as he heard, either have of every plough 6s. 8d. or take an ox of every one that would not pay, and that every christening and burying should pay 6s. 8d. Being apprehended and brought before us, he confessed he was one of those who made the late assault at Carlisle and shot arrows at those in the town, and that the constables of the townships, after divers bills set upon church doors, warned him and his company so to rise, alleging that one of the Percies would shortly join them. We think he deserves the most cruel punishment; but Mr. Fitzherbert says the words are no ground for putting him to death, and that he cannot be indicted in one shire for an offence committed in another; we therefore forbear to proceed till we know your pleasure.’ (Warrington, 28 Feb.)

This brings us to the main point of this short article. What was to be the fate of the 74 rebels that Norfolk and the local lords had picked for summary execution? Henry had ordered Norfolk to hang ‘them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town’. We don’t know how many of them, if any, were actually hung, drawn and quartered as Henry had clearly wanted, and as was often the case for traitors under martial law. The punishment itself was described by Chronicler William Harrison as follows:

The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose.

Gibbet Irons

Gibbet Irons

It’s most likely that none of the rebels were hung, drawn and quartered. Even Robert Aske was finally spared this fate. They were in all probability all ‘hung in chains’. When Norfolk later wrote to Thomas Cromwell, he said, ‘All in this shire were hung in chains.’  What was hanging in chains? It was a form of punishment and deterrence used for centuries in England until it was abolished in 1834. An eighteenth century French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure,  described what happened:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

But in Tudor times the punishment was often even more barbaric. People were frequently hung alive in chains and they first starved in agony before putrefying on the gibbet. How many of the rebels were ‘gibbeted’ alive and how many dead is not known. The point of these executions was of course not simply to kill people, it was also to make them and their relatives suffer and to be so terrifying that it would act as a deterrent to any future challenges to royal authority. The cadavers were not allowed to be removed and buried. They should remain rotting, sometimes for years, in full sight of their communities. For the condemned and their relatives this was not just a question of suffering and grief, it was also a matter concerning their eternal souls: Many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

The rebels were hanged (in chains) in their own villages, ‘in trees in their gardens to record for memorial’ the end of the rebellion.

Twelve were hanged in chains in Carlisle for the assault on the city, eleven at Appleby, eight at Penrith, five at Cockermouth and Kirkby Stephen, and so on; scarcely a moorland parish but could show one or two such memorials. Some were hanged in ropes, for iron was ‘marvellous scarce’ and the chain-makers of Carlisle were unable to meet the demand. The victims were all poor men, farm hands from the fields and artisans of the little towns; probably the bailiff of Embleton was the highest man among them. Only one priest suffered with them, a chaplain of Penrith.

Once the executions of these poor men had been carried out, in village after village throughout Cumberland and Westmorland, their women wanted to bury their husbands, sons and fathers. Like latter-day Antigones, they thought this to be their natural right and duty. But Henry’s law, like that of Creon, forbade it. At great risk to their own safety and lives, the women crept out at night and cut down their men and secretly buried them.

In May, when Norfolk heard that ‘all’ the rebels’ bodies had been cut down and buried, he ordered the Cumberland magistrates to seek out the ‘ill-doers’. They sent him nine or ten confessions in reply, but he did not consider these nearly enough: ‘It is a small number concerning seventy-four that hath been taken down, wherein I think your Majesty hath not been well served.’

The Dodds write: ‘Of all the records these brief confessions are the most heart-breaking and can least bear description. The widows and their neighbours helped each other. Seven or eight women together would wind the corpse and bury it in the nearest churchyard, secretly, at nightfall or day break. Sometimes they were turned from their purpose by the frightened priest, and then the husband’s body must be buried by a dyke-side out of sanctified ground, or else brought again more secretly than ever and laid in the churchyard under cover of night. All was done by women, save in two cases when the brother and cousin of two of the dead men were said to have died from the “corruption” of the bodies they had cut down.’

Norfolk asked the King what he should do with these offenders. They were all, he said, women: ‘the widows, mothers and daughters of the dead men’. Thomas Cromwell was displeased, suspecting that Norfolk had ordered or countenanced this. Norfolk tried to placate him and shift any blame to the Earl of Cumberland. He wrote to Cromwell:

I do perceive by your letter that ye would know whether such persons as were put to execution in Westmorland and Cumberland were taken down and buried by my commandment or not: undoubtedly, my good lord, if I had consented thereunto, I would I had hanged by them; but on my troth, it is 8 or 9 days past since I heard first thereof, and then was here with me a servant of my lord of Cumberland called Swalowfield, dwelling about Penrith, by whom I sent such a quick message to my said lord, because he hath the rule in Cumberland as warden, and is sheriff of Westmorland and hath neither advertised me thereof, nor hath not made search who hath so highly offended his Majesty, and also commanding him to search for the same with all diligence, that I doubt not it shall evidently appear it was done against my will.

We don’t know what the subsequent inquiries about these women’s actions disclosed and what, if any, were the consequences.

Henry's Field of the Cloth of Gold

Henry’s Field of the Cloth of Gold

This brutal episode in English history is usually given scant mention in histories of the period, particularly in histories of Henry VIII  – concerned as they depressingly are with political machinations, battles and the deeds of ‘great men’. Yet surely such events tell us more about the real history of England, or better said the real history of the English people, than do Henry’s dealings with the Holy Roman Emperor, the Papacy, his opulent and ostentatious ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ or his tedious litany of marriages?

Of course the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Cumbrian rebellion had failed – although taken together they were the most significant challenge Henry would ever face at home. But in the case of the Cumbrian rebellion, its significance does not lie in its success or failure. It lies in the fact that it is just another much neglected example of what happens when ordinary English people try to protest against the repression of their rulers, their economic pauperization or the suppression of their religious or other rights. As Leveller leader Colonel Thomas Rainborough was to write in the seventeenth century:

For really, I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government.

Antigone buries her brother

Antigone buries her brother

What I find a pity is that Antigone’s poignant and courageous act of burying her brother, whether it really happened or not, has been studied and dissected for at least two thousand years. German Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel even saw it as a clash of right against right: familial natural right against the right of the state; others interpret it differently. Yet ‘only’ five hundred years ago, dozens of poor Cumbrian women did the same thing and ran the same risk as Antigone, but they are hardly remembered at all. Who would dare today to present their bravery and humanity as a clash of two equally valid rights?


Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 12; Madeleine Hope Dodds & Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy, (1915); M. L. Bush, The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536, (1996); Michael Bush & David Bownes, The Defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Postpardon Revolts of December 1536 to March 1537 and Their Effect, (1999).

‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

I want to write a little about one of my favourite poems: Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Like all poetry this should be heard rather than read. The Northern Irish actor Kenneth Branagh has recorded most of Owen’s poetry and you can listen to his rendition here if you wish. But for me at least, Branagh’s readings of Owen’s poetry, beautiful diction though they have, leave me cold. There is real anger and real sadness in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, anger and sadness that Branagh’s reading totally misses. I prefer the very simple reading at the end of the magnificent 1997 film Regeneration (here). If you watch the whole film, the poem, when it comes, will have you in tears. It’s still not angry enough for me, but very moving nonetheless.

I first read this poem at school more than forty years ago. Our English teacher was, I think, a bit of a closet radical. Coming back to it now I thought the poem’s meaning was so obvious that no one would ever need to spend more than a minute or two on interpretation. Yet actually that’s probably not correct. The reason why the ‘meaning’ of the poem is so obvious to me is because I was brought up at a time and in a society where knowledge of the Bible and of the First World War was just there. Every day we had Bible readings in school. Our grandparents had experienced the war and many of our teachers had lived through it. In much of the western world this is no longer the case. In many, many ways this is a good thing. Thank God (oops!) children don’t have to have horrendous biblical bunkum pushed down their throats. Thank God most western children no longer have to hear about the massacre of whole generations. But when it comes to canonical poetry or literature there’s a bit of a gap.

This became clear to me when I wrote a couple of short pieces on poetry, in particular one about A. E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills. I soon realised that this poem must be on the curriculum of quite a few American schools or colleges. At least every few weeks a school teacher in the US sets his or her students a task of writing a critique or interpretation of Blue Remembered Hills. And, lo and behold, it seems that the students don’t read the poem and think about what it means to them or even try to figure out for themselves what the poet might have meant. No, what they do is go straight onto the internet looking for someone else’s ready-made interpretation which they can then, at best, use or, at worst, plagiarize.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Now for every ten students who cut and paste or simply plagiarize there will be one who is really moved and wants to offer their own penny worth. Perhaps it was ever thus.

We might even want to question (I hope not) the relevance of old canonical novels, plays and poetry. After all for school and college students today the Boer War which Housman alludes to and the First World War which is the immediate subject of Owen’s poetry are ancient history. Be that as it may.

Let’s return to The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is of course an anti-war poem, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a denunciation of imperialistic capitalism and a searing indictment of the warped morality of sacrifice. Whose sacrifice and for whom?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is an allegory based on the Old Testament story (or parable if you like) found in Genesis 22 and usually called The Binding of Isaac. This story is, like most in the Old Testament, a pretty evil story, completely lacking in anything that we would regard as moral today:

The Binding of Isaac

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham didn’t even hesitate. He started straight away to prepare the sacrificial altar: ‘Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.’ Isaac in his innocence didn’t get what his father was doing: ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham avoided the question and lied: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

No hesitation, no compassion. Abraham just had to obey God’s word. ‘Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.’ Then and only then do we get one of the original Deus ex machina. Just as he was about to slay his son God stops him:

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

Because Abraham had been more than ready to obey, God let him off the hook. He could sacrifice ‘a ram caught by its horns’ instead. God was very pleased with the result of his little charade and rewarded Abraham:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

A more pitiless, immoral tale it would be hard to find. What on earth can this ‘lovely’ story or parable teach us except unthinking obedience to a remote and all powerful God? But at least Isaac had been spared, even though this seems to have mattered not one iota to his father.

In Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Isaac, who represents the millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, is not spared. Abram (an earlier form of Abraham) is the heartless omnipotent power; he is the ‘old’ power of the imperialistic, militaristic states. The power of money, position and pride. This power, just like God, demands obedience and sacrifice, the sacrifice not of their power but of ‘the young’. As in the Old Testament the young ask an obvious innocent question:

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

‘Fire and iron’ to make the weapons of war are being prepared, but who will be the sacrificial ‘lamb’? Like the Biblical Isaac they got no answer:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

The young were kitted out in ‘belts and straps’. Parapets and trenches were dug ready for the knife to fall, ready for the sacrifice of a whole generation. God’s angel tries to offer a helping hand and a way out:

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

There was no reason for this war, no fight of good against evil. It was just the useless pride of the rulers that prevented them from seeing reason. If they had been willing to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ instead of their own people, the slaughter could have been avoided. But no, the rulers were more pitiless than God:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In the heartless Bible Abraham’s people (the later Jews) were rewarded: ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ In our time there is no redemption, not even an offer of future glory. The power must be obeyed, the people are sacrificed.